Cordell and Rachel Cordaro

Art House Press
May 12, 2018 3:30PM

A full-lipped woman gazes out from behind the bar with blue, mascara-lined eyes. Her name is Bibesia. She sits at a table for one—a decision, not a circumstance. Her unapologetic arrogance intrigues me...

Artists Cordell & Rachel Cordaro Photography by Hannah Betts

By Pam Acord  

The desire for beauty is merely a heightened form of the desire for life. -Oscar Wilde

A full-lipped woman gazes out from behind the bar with blue, mascara-lined eyes. Her name is Bibesia. She sits at a table for one—a decision, not a circumstance. Her unapologetic arrogance intrigues me. I’m at Solera’s in the South Wedge sipping a malbec and talking with good friends, but it’s that woman who has my attention. A sparse black dress cups her pendulous breasts. Her hair is a tempest, the size of an eagle’s nest; her face, carnivalesque. Her willowy fingertips nibble on the tender stem of a wine glass. Her pinky dangles. A strange blend of dysfunction and poise. A misfit? Yes. But just the kind of woman I would want to meet. If she were real, I would buy her a drink and pull up a chair.  

At evening’s end, as I make my way to leave, I compliment the owner on his choice of artwork. He tells me a bit of what he knows about the painting and the man who created it.  

His name? Cordell Cordaro.  

Eight, maybe nine months pass. My sister calls from Pittsburgh. Tells me to open my email. She’s found a painting she wants to buy from an artist in Rochester and asks if I would take a look at it. And so I do. My computer screen opens to a deluge of audacious reds, yellows, purples, and blues. Flowers, in bud and bloom, with gold and silver tendrils winding through an earth-tone backdrop. It’s regal yet unpretentious; bold yet breezy. Today it hangs above the entryway to my sister’s dining room.  

The artist? Rachel Cordaro.  

That was six years ago. Today, the names Cordell Cordaro and Rachel Cordaro are at the top of Rochester’s art scene. Talk with nearly anyone in Rochester who holds even a marginal interest in art and he knows of the Cordaros. Cordell’s swanky portraits of the bourgeois lifestyle hang in restaurants and bars across this city and beyond; Rachel’s beamish blossoms are sold by the number in Rochester’s high-end boutiques. As an art collector, it’s hard for me to choose which of Cordell’s posh beau monde I like best, and I’ve fallen into the habit of switching out Rachel’s floral canvases as if they were a vase of fresh flowers plucked weekly from the backyard garden. The fortunate problem becomes which to choose and where to hang it next. Check out their websites and you’ll see what I mean.  

How can an artist achieve this kind of notoriety in such a short amount of time? The answer: When inspiration touches talent, she gives birth to truth and beauty. Abstract ideas become real. Things begin to happen.  

When I met with the Cordaros in their home one mid-summer evening, we talked about what propelled their decision to take the path of a professional artist. Cordell recalled his early days as a skycap at the Rochester airport: “I was lugging bags around for hours and hours,” he tells me. “I could see all these people getting on planes and flying off to other places, and I remember thinking that one day I’ll be the one taking the plane and flying off somewhere. That’s when I knew I had to make a something happen,” he says. Then one day, he was driving along Brockport’s canal side when his world shifted a degree or two on its axis. Not an intellectual shift, but rather a tectonic shift. Something far beneath the surface rearranged itself and he began to see his life’s work on a trajectory that didn’t exist the day before—the kind of knowing that comes from a source unknown. He’s meant to make art.

Not far down the road, Rachel was popping pies into an oven and bagging sub sandwiches at an Italian bakery in Gates. She liked her job. She liked her colleagues. But Rachel is an artist, not a baker. Cutting cookies, into any which shape, couldn’t fuel her artistic fancies. “I just knew I needed to be doing something creative,” she says. She put in a three-month notice and left the bakery. “You just gotta do it,” she tells me. Now her mornings begin with creamed coffee, crimson paint, and a blank canvas.  

What is it about their art that is so compelling? Putting words to that question is a bit of a task, and I never thought much about it until I began writing this article. The answer, at least in part, harkens back to the Greek maxims about the human need for beauty and our quest for self-knowledge.  

Art gives insight into the human spirit that words cannot. Cordell puts it this way: “Human language,” he explains, “is limiting in what we can express creatively or what we can experience. Artists think a lot. They have impressions inside their head. But when we try to put words to these impressions the meanings get lost. So when a painter sees a blank canvas, he thinks to himself ‘ok, let’s do this.’ The abstract meanings that are inside come out on the canvas, the inner emotion, the passion for life, it all comes out on the canvas.”

“Artists can be a little short on words,” Rachel agrees, “but an audience is pulled toward confidence and when it sees that in our painting, it pulls them in. We love what we do, and that confidence shines through on the canvas. We just want to create something beautiful.”  

In art, as in life, there are few more pleasurable sights than a beautiful woman. Cordell’s women, at once beautiful and shocking, reveal a campaign against the standardization of beauty given to us by the ancient Greeks. Cordell is a modernist. His women (and men) self-sufficiently and unself-consciously inhabit a world of their own—an unconscious striving that motivates many of us—but their exaggerated and sometimes distorted depiction ruptures our classical notions of beauty. Beneath their elegant, civilized veneer, you will find that his subjects, whether male or female, deliberately display their interior longings, their idiosyncrasies that would otherwise be squashed by social decorum. They teach us that people can’t be viewed only in terms of idyllic outward appearances.  

Rachel’s work, on the other hand, prioritizes outward beauty. Her flowers don’t attempt to reproduce physical reality; instead, they strive for a higher symbolic truth: our need for nature’s enchantments. She doesn’t paint with the delicate intricacy one might expect in floral art, but rather with broad, thick strokes and strong centers that carry a flare of confidence into the blossoms. Her paintings have no human subjects, yet they exude human personality: dramatic, shy, flirtatious, quiet, sassy, classy, and at times untamed.  

Cordell and Rachel are stylistically decorative artists and thematically expressionist artists. The beauty they create offers a respite in a culture where we continually haggle with the stresses of economic pinch, corporate corruption, risks of encroaching technologies, and all together too busy lives. As such, Cordell sees himself as much an entrepreneur as he does an artist. “Business surrounds art,” he says.  

“Yes,” I tell him, “but we live in a culture that claims it loves art, it needs art, yet the artist is arguably the least paid professional in our culture. How do you reconcile that with your choice as a career artist?”  

“We have this weird structure where the gallery owners are making money by hustling out the artists,” argues Cordell. He goes on to explain that the big-name galleries control the art market by endorsing selected artists. “It’s a weird game,” he laments. Yet, entrepreneurs, young and old, all over Rochester are opening their own independent business instead of signing up with the big companies. “If artists took the same individual approach, they could compete with the galleries,” encourages Cordell. “When you go the gallery route,” he aptly argues, “you’re giving someone else the reigns to your career.”  

Although we didn’t specifically discuss this, I sensed their impatience with those artists who price themselves out of the market, losing one possibility after another in fear of giving the image of a “sell out.” Cordell and Rachel have no such pieties. While money isn’t at the center of their decision to become career artists, they have no qualms about accepting money for their creativity. “It’s empowering,” says Cordell, “because you’re taking control of your life instead of allowing someone else to control it. You should never be ashamed of that.”  

Many of us have had the lofty notion of entrepreneurship or of becoming an artist of some sort, but we all know how that story goes. It usually begins with procrastination and ends with stagnation—the I’ll-start-tomorrow jinx. That’s not the way the Cordaros work. While most often people choose career paths that veer from what really interests them—be it from peer pressure, social expectations, self-sabotage, or the pursuit of money—Cordell and Rachel opted instead to plunge deep into the very thing that interests them most: to create beautiful art. They then set out on a campaign to make it happen, a campaign of patience and endurance, of mastering their craft and jumping into the muck.  

When craft, commitment, and confidence converge, astonishing things happen. As famed poet-philosopher Johann Goethe counsels, “Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it. Begin it now.”  Cordell and Rachel Cordaro were born to paint. They jumped in the muck, and the pleasures of their reward are ours to enjoy.

Cordell Cordaro website: www.CordellCordaro.com  Rachel Cordaro website: www.RachelCordaro.com

Art House Press